Thursday, March 12, 2009


And then it was Neil's turn to drive through the crappy weather. I handed over while it was snowing and blowing and settling. Visibility wasn't good, you could see the yellow line from time to time, occasionally a bit of tarmac so you knew there was some road under there somewhere. I went to bed. Sleeping while the truck is moving has become strangely comforting now, although there is still an awareness of odd things happening. I half awoke at one point in the night under the impression we were reversing, put it down to a wacky dream turned over and went back to sleep.

At about 1 in the morning the truck stopped. "the road's been closed by the police" advised Neil, apparently it had all got a teensy bit worse. The whiteout was now total. He had been directed to park in the car park of a little motel and garage just by where the police had cordoned off the road. And it wasn't a dream, we had been going backwards. Shortly before being forced to stop anyway Neil had been contemplating the same after losing traction completely going up a hill. As the truck ground to a worrying halt, he observed that the tarmac on the other side of the road was a bit better ploughed, so had reversed back down a way in order to try going up again on the wrong side of the road.

Neil went to sleep and I promised to check out the lay of the land when my shift began at four in the morning. I duly arose at four and looked out of the window. The police car was still blocking the road. Yay, can't go anywhere, more sleep. In need of a wee, I hopped out to investigate the facilities and landed in a knee-high snowdrift. The loos were closed. Having sorted out that little problem in ways that wouldn't be polite to specify in a nicely brought up blog, I was thoroughly wet and cold anyway, so decided to nose about a bit in search of practical ways out of the car park as and when. There was another truck parked close in front of us. I would need to take a bit of a sharp turn to get round him, which would bring my wheels directly into some nasty snowdrifts. Sharp turns are fatal for maintaining traction. It looked a lot like a recipe for disasters of a stuck-in-the-snow variety, so I made a mental note to wait for him to move off ahead of us when the road finally opened.

I snoozed for an hour, looked out of window, road still closed. Snoozed for hour and a half, looked out of window, road still closed. At about 8ish I spotted a trucker striding purposefully towards the motel with coffee cup in hand; and naturally I followed. A real loo trip and a coffee later I was all perked up and ready to drive. Road still closed. I wandered around the truck, checking tyres and brushing snow off lights and reflective strips, we would be ready for the off as soon as they let us through.

Eventually the road opened. All the trucks arriving after us had been lined up on the hard shoulder, and set off in a cloud of freezing exhaust fumes, but the truck in front of us remained stationary. I went and hammered on the door. Several times. A sleepy face appeared and grimaced at me as I pointed out that the road was open and we could move but he was in my way. "Ok, ok" and he disappeared. We sat, we waited, we watched. As I drummed my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel and the truck in front of us didn't move, people began to emerge from the motel and dig themselves out of the snowdrifts they were now parked in. The first to leave was a little U-Haul van. He made a desperate attempt to run the snowdrift that now filled the entrance to the car park but failed miserably
We were still going nowhere but at least there was now something to watch. People came and went with shovels and cups of salt. A little snowplough arrived to shovel the car park and tried to push the van forwards into the road. Then he tried to push it backwards into the car park. He gave up and began ploughing the bits he could get at, bearing in mind the two dirty great tractor-trailers and the lodged van in his way. An hour or so later a tow truck arrived and finally pulled the little van into the street and on his way. The snow plough driver hastened to clear a bit more of the exit while we waited for the truck in front of us to move off. He'd gone for a cup of coffee by this time though, and while I yelled 'Noooo' at the top of my voice, at nobody in particular, another car attempted the impossible and got itself stuck between the truck and the exit.

People, shovels, cups of salt, little plough trying to get round them and clear piles of snow away. By the time this car had been shifted, the car park was a mass of ridges of packed snow. "If he's got any sense" I said to Neil, referring to the truck in front of us "he'll wait for the plough to do that bit over there before he tries to get out." As I said this, truck in front of us gave me a cheery wave and headed off out of the car park, to get his trailer wheels well and truly stuck in the snowdrift he'd not avoided by trying to avoid the bit that wasn't ploughed yet.

People, shovels, ploughs etc. The combined nuisance value of a truck stuck in the car park and lots of delayed residents alerted the local police, who sent a little patrol along. He very helpfully dug out another car or two while commandeering a couple of highway snowploughs, one to widen the exit from the car park and the other to tow the truck out of the snow bank. We sat and watched. Another hour passed. I took a few photos.

Eventually, there was nothing between me and the road except for a lot of mangled snow. "I think I'm going to tell the little plough that I'd like to sit here for another five minutes while he finishes off the middle there" I told Neil. "We're so late now, it won't make much of a difference and it'll be easier to make the turn." "I'll go, I've still got my boots on." So Neil wandered over to the poor little man who'd been trying to do his job all morning, in between digging people out, and told him we'd keep out of the way for a bit. Five minutes later we were out and on the road.
It was slick, icy and slippery. The ploughs had been by and mashed the snow down into a solid layer of scariness.

The road east from Marathon, Ontario is windy and uppy and downey. We managed about 80 kph on the straight bits, a lot less on the hills and bends. Not very fast at all on the hills with bends at the bottoms and when the whiteouts whipped up. A bit pathetic, other trucks with presumably more experienced and less wimpy drivers flew past us when and where they could. After a couple of hours we were stopped again. Another police cordon, another road closed. Popping into the handy truckstop we'd been corralled in, we heard the gossip. A truck had 'parked in the ditch' in front of us. Behind us, the road was now closed again due to a seventeen truck pile-up with fires and people killed. All of a sudden I didn't mind being the sort of wimp who drives slowly in ice and snow. Arriving in one piece any old how seemed to be sufficient achievement.

It took all day and half of the night. They winched the offending truck out of the ditch eventually and off we all trooped. The road remained slick, it snowed, the whiteouts came and went, blowing up without warning as the road wound around the lake. We emerged from the Lake Effect Winter Storm exhausted, stressed out and late. But we emerged, which is more than some did. Over-cautious? Moi? Probably.


Military manoeuvres

A day's rest in Edmonton restored our spirits a little and we headed off to the next pickup in sprightlier mood. Cold Lake was the destination, apparently aptly named although I didn't actually try out the lake itself. It is about as far north as you can get in Alberta, before the roads give up bothering. The only thing in Cold Lake is an air force base, which is where we were due to collect something, from someone. The shipping address consisted of a mere three letters, CFB, which we only knew to be some sort of military establishment because we happened to be chinwagging over a cup of coffee with a helpful and friendly Challenger team in Edmonton when the assignment came in.
We sent a satellite message to despatch, asking for a bit of help with finding our load. We assumed that the base would be easy enough to locate, but that there might be some sort of protocol attached to getting in and that it might include such security issues as knowing where you were supposed to be collecting what. Driving a truck aimlessly about an airbase with no specific destination in mind seemed as though it might be behaviour designed to spark suspicion.

Despatch were still mulling over the whole problem when we arrived. Quite why they couldn't just call the person who made the booking in the first place is a bit beyond me, but then I am just the grunt these days. We followed some remarkably pretty signs to the base and spotted a guardhouse and barrier in the distance. "We'll just have to ask there, presumably they can call someone if we're not allowed in." Please bear in mind that this is a team of two Brits problem-solving their way around a remarkably alien culture...the guard house was empty, the barrier up and a green light invited us in. I had a moment to wonder what might have happened if our truck had been full of fertilizer, but then I have clearly spent too much time being bombed by the IRA and this is Canada. Even the armed forces are friendly.

One thing that would appear to be the same the world over is that military bases are reminiscent of small towns. Where does one park a bloody great truck in order to ask directions? We plumped for sticking to big roads while heading for the nearest available manned barrier that actually blocked the way to somewhere. A few tight corners later and we approached just such a thing. I considered pulling right up to the guardhouse but could see that there wasn't a window at truck height and decided to stop a few yards shy of it, just in case of misunderstandings of a security nature. The girl in the hut spent several minutes piling on layers of winter clothing before ambling inquisitively down to us to see what we wanted. "I'm awfully sorry, didn't want to come right up to you in case we're not allowed through there but we have to collect a consignment from the base and don't know where to go." It sounded a bit lame.

Apparently where we had to go was back the way we had come, and up a little street to the Military Police building, for identification purposes. A small queue of jeeps and things was forming behind us. "Um, could we come in and turn around?" "There's nowhere to turn, unless you can use the intersection here..." There was a small crossroads just beyond the gatehouse. "I can stop the traffic for you if you like."

Neil and I considered the space. It was tight, but possible. Snowbanks on all corners made the feat a little extra exciting but we had no choice. Will a full audience of uniformed types, I executed a perfect U-turn and grinned my way off to be identified. Of course, now we know where it is, the MP building was the obvious destination, it had truck parking and everything. They found our shipper and engaged an escort to take us into the relevant restricted area. He arrived in the form of a very red-faced squaddie who addressed himself entirely to Neil while explaining where we would be driving to. Neil smiled politely, met my eye and said nothing. Red-faced squaddie escorted us outside and managed to not look too confused when we headed for the wrong sides of our vehicle and it became apparent that I was the driver today.

He led us through barriers and along lanes, and finally through an apparently pointless concrete chicane, to a large shed. "We need you to back up to that door there, sorry it's a bit tight." Tight isn't the word, it was a blind-side reverse with snowbanks on all sides and a helpfully parked jeep in the way. My heart sank. There was me, determined to prove that women did this stuff and the worst of all possible manoeuvres to attempt. Neil got it. He jumped out to guide me back, told the assembled chaps in no uncertain terms just how difficult this would be and muttered, "Just do as I tell you, it'll be fine." And after a fashion, it was. Yay, put that in your pipe and smoke it squaddie-who-only-talks-to-men.

It took a couple of hours serious snoozing for the assembled company to hand-load the trailer full of boxes of stuff and then we were ready to be escorted off the premises. I was a little cocky by then. I was going to show the Canadian Air Force just what women could do. It is therefore possible that I took the pointless concrete chicane just maybe half a kilometre per hour faster.than before. And it was a tad tight anyway, barely enough space to swing the tractor around to avoid the next lump of concrete as the trailer wheels swivelled around the one you'd left behind. Anyway, there's no getting away from the awful truth, we felt this 'orrible lurch as the front wheel dropped off the road, through a snowdrift into a ditch.

The first thing that went through my head was 'ah, this will be fun to write about'. The second was 'ohnoohnoohnoohno not here, please...' and I can now report the amazing scientific finding that embarrassment can overcome physics. A spot of reverse, a smidge of forward, a bit more thisaway and some jiggerypokery over there and we were out of the ditch, through the chicane and off the base. Women drivers though. Useless.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Snow, The Soo, and high winds in Alberta

Welcome back to winter Carolyn. It was spring in London with crocuses and stuff, in fact it was relatively mild in Ontario too, come to think of it. The snowbanks were melting, leaving behind piles of brownish sludge and puddles in the road which freeze overnight. But, we were destined to head north and west and it didn’t take long to be back in real, proper winter. Northern Ontario goes on forever, it takes a full 24 hours driving to get anywhere near the border with Manitoba and the roads are slushy, hilly, bendy and tiring. They do, however offer a little more in the way of places to drive through than the main drag through the Prairies.

We opted for a new route this week. We are tired of Highway 11. We have tried all the coffee stops and tested all the bathroom opportunities. There is a decent enough truckstop at New Liskeard and a Tim Horton’s you can park near in Cochrane, but the road is difficult to drive and prone to blizzards. The time had come to sample Highway 17, which snakes around Lake Superior and takes in Sudbury and Sault Saint Marie. Now Sault Saint Marie, for some arcane reason I have yet to discover, is known colloquially as The Soo. (I've tried Googling, any offers on what a Sault is and why it's a Soo would be appreciated.)I would like to be Canadian enough to refer to it in so friendly a manner but it seems a bit presumptuous to be that familiar with a city you’ve not actually visited. This was my chance to remedy the problem. We’ve driven through The Soo. Can’t tell you much about it though, except that its Esso commercial diesel stop does not boast any bathroom facilities.

The drive was pretty, the lake will no doubt look spectacular in summer, but has a bit of an odd look to it just now, with all manner of forbidding grey lumps on the surface where waves and swells have frozen in mid-wave. Or possible mid-swell. Then on through the boring bits and through the border town of Lloydminster, which lays partly in Saskatchewan and partly in Alberta. The provincial border is pointed out helpfully but in an unassuming sort of way at a set of traffic lights along the main drag. Since there is an hour’s time difference between the two provinces, the helpful little sign at the traffic lights denotes a time zone change as well. I can’t help wondering how they manage to get the school buses to run on time.

It got a bit windy on the Alberta side of Lloydminster. Snow began to drift from the fields onto the road. As dusk fell the wind got worse, so much snow blew from the fields across the road that it became a tad troublesome finding the road. Darker and windier, now the snow was blowing across my field of vision as well, almost a whiteout. Not so total a whiteout that you couldn’t see the cars in ditches all over the place, or the trucks on the hard shoulder who had clearly given up trying to drive for the night, but nearly there. Stopping on the hard shoulder for anything other than a breakdown is a bit of a major no-no, dangerous and frowned-upon in all circumstances so I wasn’t minded to join them. I decided to keep driving, somewhat slowly, until I reached one of Alberta’s famous ‘roadside turnout’ lay-bys to stop for the night. Only in Canada would these natty little places exist, sort of drive-through recycling centres where you can pop your accumulated picnic rubbish into a series of car-window height bins angled for your convenience. They are also handily truck-sized for taking a break. I probably passed several, couldn’t see them of course.

It got windier. Now blooming great snowdrifts were blowing onto the road so that every time I drove through one it totally obscured the car behind me, presumably blinding the driver. Whenever anyone passed anyone, kicking up that little bit more snow as they went, the whiteout was total. I plodded, white-knuckled and awaiting the sickening lurch into a ditch for 400 kms. As we reached Edmonton and buildings began to block the wind a bit, it was clear enough again to be able to see the road. And all the ice all over it. Neil popped his head out from the bunk, nicely timed to help me find the Canada Post facility (I always get lost in Edmonton) and asked how the drive had been. “I’ll tell you in a minute, I just have to find a washroom and throw up first.”

Thursday, March 5, 2009

This is an ex-Londoner

I wasn’t planning to blog about a trip to London. I’m a Londoner born and bred so it doesn’t count as travelling, but then maybe trips down Memory Lane ought to. As it happens I found the dear old city quite a bit friendlier, quieter and wackier than I had remembered.
Quieter possible because all the people who were yelling into their mobile phones on the bus last time I visited are now possessed of Blackberries and are typing instead of yelling. Friendlier, I can’t fathom. Maybe it’s me. I am sufficiently Canadian now to make eye contact with people in the street and chat to fellow waiters for trains; one of us has definitely changed.

But wackier is the point of this blog. People are doing the oddest things to brighten up their surroundings, from the peerless Banksy, who is on a one man mission to turn graffiti into a witty and thought provoking art form, to the chap whose name I don’t know who has chosen to decorate the pavements of North London with little paintings on the blobs of chewing gum people tread into the stone.

It all began when I mentioned to Rachael, with whom I had been staying, that there seemed to be much less litter about these days and that the absence of litter meant that you could see the chewing gum all the better. This led on to the story of the artist who is to be found in all weathers, laying face down in various streets, painting the gum. Apparently he has been arrested several times but, to date, prosecutions for defacing the pavement have been unsuccessful because he isn’t. And the council do not, legally, own the chewing gum. Now, after my little rant about chewing gum last week this may seem a little odd but I found the whole idea delightful. So, obviously we went on a fact-finding tour and photos of some of the finer works of art have found their way into the slideshow.

On the way we found a Bansky at Archway which has not yet been quite scrubbed away by the authorities, but I understand that a tour of East London is required to find most of the rest of them. Without wishing to be diverted too often from my mission of bringing you North America from a truck, it may just have to be done sometime in the future.

I should probably add another chewing gum related oddity, since it seems to be a bit of a hot topic, well in my head anyway. Sadly, I forgot to take a picture of the Gum Target attached to a local bus stop. It is a little plate on the bus stop advertising itself as a handy place to pop your gum when you’ve finished with it, presumably in some public-spirited attempt to keep the stuff off the pavement. Despite being a potentially great idea in someone’s head, the reality was utterly disgusting. Dried-up lumps of other people’s toothmarks at eye level. I think I prefer it on the ground. Especially when painted.

Back in Ontario and off with a truckload of mail to Edmonton (again) tonight, half hoping for adventures to write about and half hoping for an easy run due to lingering jet lag. Either way, I will be smiling about gum paintings for some time to come.